Why do we observe Shabbat – for God or for ourselves?
The question is as old as religion. It appears in this week’s sidra when Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let Israel go, “for it is a feast of the Lord for us” (Ex. 10:9).
Yet God’s actual words were, “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness” (Ex. 5:1).
Is the feast for us – or for God?
Elsewhere the Torah says, “it shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:8) but also, “It shall be a solemn assembly for you” (Num. 29:35).
Debating the issue, Rabbi Eliezer held that the solemn assembly had to belong “either entirely to God or entirely to you”, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Divide it – half for you and half for God” (Pesachim 68b).
Our communion with God, in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, fulfils His need; our actions, such as Shabbat and festival meals, are for our own needs.
(Other aspects of religion are also for our benefit – Torah study deepens our knowledge, love and commitment; ethical conduct improves us and society; prayer puts our lives and ideas into perspective.)
But how can God be in need of anything we do, give or say? Even without our worship, is He not God?
One answer is that He is like a king who does not rule unless he has subjects. (One is reminded of the days in England when the Chief Rabbi had no rabbis over whom to be chief – a chief without Indians).
This does not mean that God does not or cannot exist without His creatures. On the contrary, the unique feature of his existence is that it is independent, self-sufficient and completely without human characteristics such as needs and desires. Even without a world, He could and would still be.
But the world depends on its ruler. He needs to be acknowledged as King in order for the creation to survive and have meaning and a task.